Washington University obstetrics professor Lewis Wall has traveled to Africa multiple times, helped set up hospitals and medical universities there, fixed the lives of countless women with childbirth injuries and taken his fistula repair foundation worldwide.
Then on Friday, Jan. 30, Wall and his wife Helen sat down by the fireplace in the library to discuss their adventures with Deborah Bohlmann’s sophomore Honors World Lit classes.
The Walls are founders of the Worldwide Fistula Fund, an organization working to prevent the fistula childbirth injuries that occur most commonly in poor African nations incapable of providing suitable care for pregnant young women.
Bohlmann and her classes originally learned of the Walls and their work when reading a chapter in Nicolas Kristoff’s “Half the Sky.” Bohlmann then contacted Wall and arranged for him to speak to her classes.
“The research project we are immersed in right now is focused on examining exactly what Dr. and Mrs. Wall have accomplished in their lives,” Bohlmann said. “These are two people whose lives exemplify the themes of empathy and connection of cross-cultures that we’ve studying in our class.”
Bohlmann’s first and fifth hour students asked the Walls questions about their experiences in Niger, Ethiopia, and other African poor nations that have benefited from the Worldwide Fistula Fund.
“That experience was eye-opening, a real humbling experience,” Lewis said of their latest trip to Ethiopia, spent supporting the training of obstetricians. “The most important thing to take away from this is the constant humanity that binds us all together.”
“We don’t realize how fortunate we are in our everyday life,” Helen said, stressing the importance of not taking life in the United States for granted. “The power went on and off all the time in Ethiopia; we couldn’t drink water from the tap…then just walking into a Dierbergs for the first time when we got home was incredible.”
“That was an accident of chance for you to be born into a culture like this,” Lewis said.
Still, the Walls have worked in some of the poorest nations in Africa, including Niger, where the Walls opened the Danja Fistula Center in February 2012. It has restored countless women with fistulas to health over the last three years. Fistulas in women develop from obstructed, usually uncared for labor and can cause urine and feces to constantly poor out.
Women with fistulas become socially deficient as well. Most women in these cases are outcast to live on their own at the edge of their village, and slowly deteriorate physically and emotionally over time.
“This is a problem that happens to women through no fault of their own,” Lewis said. “They are urinating 24 hours a day with a constant flow…. A lot of people with fistulas have been secluded from their families as well, they’ve been lying in bed for months in some cases.”
“It’s hard to turn your back on that and live with yourself,” Lewis said.